Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rafting the Nile

I’m upside-down, being tossed around like a t-shirt in a washing machine, caught in a whipping current, and I think I’m going to die. Ok, so perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but it’s a discomforting sensation to be thrown from a raft and plunged into the churning waters of a class V rapid on the Nile, and have no ability to control your fate. You are at the mercy of the swirling water. The only thing you can do is hold your breath, close your eyes, and hope that you pop up further on down the river.

Of course, you do surface sooner or later, you life jacket ensures it. But whitewater rafting the Nile is quite an experience. Last weekend, I gathered the courage to drive two hours from Kampala, my adopted home for the summer, to Jinja, a small town at the base of the Nile River. This stretch of water is known as perhaps the toughest rafting in the world. There are four class V rapids, the highest one can do without being a professional (or certifiably insane). Friends here that had done the trip told me that it was incredibly fun, incredibly memorable, and incredibly scary. “You’ve rafted plenty of rivers,” I told myself. “This can’t be that bad.” In retrospect, those sentiments are laughable.

I loaded into my raft with two other Americans, medical students volunteering in Kampala, a Chinese couple and a Japanese couple, the four of whom spoke a combined three words of English. Our guide, a charming Ugandan named Peter who looked like he was no more than fifteen years old, found this hilarious. He could hardly get through giving us instructions without breaking down in laughter at the quizzical looks on the faces of my raft-mates. When Peter said paddle, they didn’t. When Peter said stay in the boat, they jumped out. “Great,” I thought. “Half the boat can’t understand the guide. This should be interesting.”

After a morning of torrential rain, the skies cleared and we were on our way. The first few rapids went quite well. They were big, but we cruised through and the boat stayed upright. I was gaining foolish confidence. Finally, about an hour into the trip, we approached a class V torrent nicknamed Silverback, the longest rapid on the river. As we approached, the first look of seriousness came over our guide’s face. If you fall off, Peter explained, hold on to the raft and I will pull you back in. He wasn’t joking.

The water quickened and we entered Silverback, immediately were smashed by a punishing wave. The boat went perpendicular to the river, with my side cresting above the frothy water. Before I knew it, I was spring boarded from the raft and into the depths. The first few seconds were terrifying. It’s like every piece of your body is being pushed in a direction opposite the one next to it. I went limp, like a ragdoll. With no idea which way was up, which way was down, and which way the current was taking me, I began to talk to myself. “Keep holding your breath,” I told myself. But I couldn’t. I swallowed one gulp of Nile water, and then another. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity – but was probably closer to 20 seconds – I saw daylight. Coughing, I took a quick breath of air only to be submerged again and thrown underneath. Finally, after about 200 meters of crazy whitewater, I looked up to see the raft near me, and was pulled out of the drink by my savior Peter who, by the way, found my ordeal quite funny.

I should note that the parts of the trip that were spent above water were breathtakingly beautiful. Uganda is a gem, called “the Pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill when he first laid eyes on its striking terrain. We passed through dense jungle and rolling hills. Villagers would come to the banks and should “Hello Mzungu!” at us (Mzungu is the Ugandan all-encompassing, not terribly derogatory term for white people). In calm stretches, naked children would jump in and swim after the raft until they tired. It was also humbling to be rafting at the origin of the Nile, perhaps the most important river in world history. I imagined what it would be life to continue on all the way to Egypt, as early settlers tried (and often failed). The length of the river, both in terms of miles and centuries of history, is awe-inspiring.

But back to the rafting. The last rapid of the day was aptly named “The Bad Place.” It was optional, as Peter gave us the choice to get out of the raft and watch while those crazy enough to enter risked their lives and limbs. The three Americans whole-heartedly accepted the challenge. The Asian couples had no idea what was going on, and smiled. Peter laughed.

The Bad Place is truly that, a narrow stretch where the mighty Nile dumps its waters into a canyon far too small to handle the volume it receives. This makes for a fast, powerful blast of river. Having pulled the raft to the banks, we watched another boat go through – they made it! A rarity, to be sure, but they stayed upright. Ok, let’s do this. We got in the boat and pushed off, Peter yelling instructions while trying not to grin, aware of the fate that was to come. Immediately, we were sucked into a hole in the river and then, like a wide receiver being crushed by a linebacker as he catches a pass, we were enveloped by a wave. The raft crumpled, and we were tossed. Sitting in the front of the raft, it felt as though I had been punched viciously in the solar plexus. The wind was knocked out of me as I was thrown a few meters from the boat. Just like before, after much struggling, I mercifully emerged further on down the river, in one piece.

I survived the Nile. Barely. It was exhausting, as I could barely walk up the hill to the van that was to take us to salvation: barbeque and beer. My ears were still ringing for hours afterwards, and my head pounded. There’s no question, however, that it was by far one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

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